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Path To The Playoffs: Analyzing the NFC playoff picture for the remainder of the 2020 season

Can the Bucs improve their seeding?

Tampa Bay controls its own destiny 12 games into the season.
| Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s a bittersweet time of the year.

We are in Week 14 of the NFL season, which means the end of the regular season is near. However, it also means playoff football is just around the corner.

The words “playoff football” usually don’t mean anything to the Bucs or their fans, but this year is different. Tampa Bay enters December in possession of the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. Outside of a few exceptions, the Bucs haven’t been in this position for the better part of 11 years.

So, instead of talking about what the Bucs need to do in order to make it to the postseason, we are going to talk about what they need to do in order to a) hold on to the sixth seed and b) how they can improve their seeding.

A change of pace is always nice, especially in this regard. Let’s dive in.


How does the NFC currently shake out?

1) New Orleans Saints* (10-2)

- Who they lost to: Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders
- Last four games: @PHI, KC, MINN, @CAR
- 15th-toughest strength of schedule (.510)

Analysis: Drew Brees could possibly return in Week 15, which would help solidify New Orleans’ top spot. Sean Payton is working his magic with Taysom Hill just like he did with Teddy Bridgewater in 2019, but the defense is the heart and soul of this team. The Saints do have the Packers nipping at their heels, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next four weeks.

2) Green Bay Packers (9-3)

- Who they lost to: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts
- Last four games: @DET, CAR, TEN, @CHI
- 10th-easiest strength of schedule (.458)

Analysis: The Packers are in a great spot. They’re healthy for the most part, they have a very winnable schedule over the last four weeks of the season, and they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. The defense seems to be coming alive after a seven sack performance against the Eagles. The Packers can clinch a playoff spot in Week 14 with a win and it wouldn’t surprise me if they end up with the No. 1 seed.

3) Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

- Who they lost to: Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers (2x), Miami Dolphins
- Last four games: NE, NYJ, @SEA, AZ
- Sixth-easiest strength of schedule (.417)

Analysis: The Rams may be in the best shape out of any team in the NFC in terms of scheduling. Three of their last four games are at home and they’ve already beaten Seattle and Arizona. If they want to pass the Packers for the No. 2 seed, then the tiebreaker will likely come down to strength of victory since the Rams and the Packers are both 3-1 in terms of common opponents.

4) New York Giants (5-7)

- Who they lost to: Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Dallas
Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Last four games: AZ, CLE, @BAL, DAL
- 12th-toughest strength of schedule (.512)

Analysis: The NFC East will come down to either the Giants or the Redskins and in my opinion, I think the Football Team has a better shot of winning the division than the Giants. New York’s remaining schedule appears to be too tough for the G-Men to win out and keep Washington at bay. Washington, on the other hand, has the eighth-easiest schedule and is on fire right now. It certainly helps that three of the New York’s last four are at home, though. Hold on to your butts, New Yorkers.

5) Seattle Seahawks (8-4)

- Who they lost to: Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants
- Last four games: NYJ, @WAS, LAR, @SF
- Third-easiest strength of schedule (.375)

Analysis: If I’m a Seahawks fan, I’m scared. This team cannot play defense. All you need to do is stop Seattle’s offense two or three times and you’re basically in the money. They have to travel to Washington and play a 1PM game in Week 15 and then subsequently host the Rams, who beat them earlier in the year. Seattle better get it in gear over these last four weeks or they could be in major trouble.

6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

- Who they lost to: New Orleans Saints (2x), Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Kansas
City Chiefs
- Last four games: MINN, @ATL, @DET, ATL
- Fourth-easiest strength of schedule (.396)

Analysis: The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bucs. They should win out the rest of the year considering their opponents and it all starts with Minnesota, who won’t be easy by any means. But if Tampa Bay takes care of business in Week 14, then they will be in excellent shape to make the postseason and possibly take the No. 5 seed from Seattle.

7) Minnesota Vikings (6-6)

- Who they lost to: Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Seattle
Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys
- Last four games: @TB, CHI, @NO, @DET
- Ninth-toughest strength of schedule (.562)

Analysis: Out of the seven teams currently in the postseason, Minnesota has the hardest path by a pretty good margin. Not only are the remaining teams tough tasks, but three of the final four games are on the road. That certainly doesn’t help. The good news is that Minnesota seems like a team that plays up to its opponents, so there could be a surprise or two in store for Viking fans if that holds true. But on the surface, I wouldn’t be too thrilled if I were the Vikings or a fan right now.

*Has already clinched a playoff spot

IN THE HUNT

8) Arizona Cardinals (6-6)

9) Chicago Bears (5-7)

10) Detroit Lions (5-7)

11) San Francisco 49ers (5-7)

12) Washington Football Team (5-7)

13) Atlanta Falcons (4-8)

14) Carolina Panthers (4-8)

15) Philadelphia (3-8-1)

16) Dallas Cowboys (3-9)

Analysis: The only way the Eagles or Cowboys get in is if they win the division, so I wouldn’t worry about them too much. Unless Tampa Bay implodes —which is highly doubtful— then I wouldn’t worry about the Panthers or Falcons, either. Chicago, Detroit the 49ers could possibly make a run, but most of my money is on Washington and a little bit of my money is on the Cardinals when it comes to the teams who can make some noise at the end of the year.

Arizona is in a bit of a slump, but their remaining four games are very winnable. They have the Giants and Rams on the road and the Eagles and 49ers at home. That slate registers as the ninth-easiest schedule over the last four weeks. Washington has an easy schedule as well and face off against San Francisco and Philly on the road while hosting the Seahawks and Cardinals at home.

As I mentioned earlier, I like Washington to overtake the Giants in the NFC East. Arizona will need some help to get in, but with Minnesota’s schedule, that’s very likely. In all, one —or both— of these two teams have a good shot at making the playoffs despite their current position.


What does Tampa Bay need to do in order to hold on to its playoff spot and/or improve seeding?

Well, the obvious move here is to win out. That will ensure the No. 6 seed at minimum.

According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Bucs currently have an 84% chance of making the playoffs. If they beat the Vikings, their chances jump all the way up to 96%, which essentially guarantees they’ll make the playoffs unless something crazy happens. But if the Bucs lose to the Vikings, not only will they drop to the No. 7 seed (both teams will be 7-6 and Minnesota will hold the tiebreaker), but their chances of making the postseason will drop to 62%. That’s still rendered as a good chance to make the playoffs, but it’s never a good thing if you waste 34% of a chance at an opportunity. So, the first objective over these last four weeks is to win this game. That may sound self-explanatory and obvious, but it’s also extremely imperative that the Bucs beat the Vikings.

Tampa Bay still has a shot to win the NFC South, but that would require the Saints to lose the rest of their games and for the Bucs to win the rest of theirs. According to FiveThirtyEight, there is less than a one percent chance of that happening. So, while you’re telling me there’s a chance, I wouldn’t bank on it. Much like Lloyd Christmas’ chances with Mary Swanson.

Therefore, we’ll concentrate on the two scenarios that are much more likely to happen. Seattle is the key, here. If the Seahawks lose any two of their last four games and the Bucs win out, then Tampa Bay will jump Seattle for the No. 5 seed. Both teams control their own destiny, but if either slips up, then it’s almost an immediate advantage for the other team.

If Seattle loses one of its NFC contests and the Bucs win out, both teams will be at 11-5 on the season. Since they aren’t in the same division and haven’t met head-to-head, the tiebreaker will likely come down to common opponents. Teams involved in this tiebreaker must have a minimum of four common opponents, which the Bucs and Seahawks have in the Falcons, Vikings, Giants, and Rams. If the Bucs win out, then they will finish with a 3-1 record in these games compared to a 2-2 record for the Seahawks, so the Bucs will win the tiebreaker and finish with the No. 5 seed.

But here’s where I get just slightly confused: What if the Seahawks beat the Rams in the second go-around? Which game would be chosen - the loss or the win - for the tiebreaker? I tried my damndest to research that, but couldn’t find anything. I want to make sure I don’t leave y’all hanging, so in case that messes something up, let’s look at the next tiebreaker, which is strength of victory.

Strength of victory is taking the record of the opponents that were beaten by the Bucs and Seahawks and adding them up in order to determine which record is stronger. So far, Seattle’s wins total a (.432) winning percentage compared to Tampa Bay’s (.428). The Bucs have a chance to catch up in this regard considering their remaining schedule is slightly tougher than the Seahawks, but Seattle would win the tiebreaker if both teams had an identical record and the season were to end today.

The best shot at winning this tiebreaker is for the Seahawks to beat the Jets, Washington, and the 49ers, but lose to the Rams. A win over the Rams would certainly help strengthen Seattle’s strength of victory and could possibly be the key to holding on to the No. 5 seed. Tampa Bay’s strongest opponent is Minnesota, but a win over the 6-6 Vikings wouldn’t help the Bucs as much as a Seattle win over the possibly 8-6, 9-5, or 10-4 Rams.


I just wrote over 1800 words explaining how the Bucs can improve their playoff positioning, which is great. Isn’t it an awesome feeling that we are able to have this conversation at this point in the season?

Where do YOU think the Bucs will finish in terms of playoff seeding? Which team do you trust the most to get the job done and which team do you trust the least to make the playoffs? Who are your dark horse candidates to make a run over these last four games? Let us know in the comments below!

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